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Islam and Christendom >
Medieval Christian Views of Islam and Its Prophet

It is clear that from the earliest encounters of the West with Islam, the Arab (Saracen) invaders were not seen as essentially different from any other marauders or predators. For most of those whose territories were threatened by Muslims, there was very little reference to the fact that the intruders represented a new religion. Clerics and those who were interested in religion identified Islam as a Christian heresy, but few others took account of its religious significance. The names by which Christians knew and referred to Muslims changed over the centuries. During the early period they were often referred to as Agarenes, a rough identification for Arab descendants of Hagar. Later the Greek word Saracen became more popular. This was a term that had been used from the early centuries of Christianity for all nomadic people but came to be applied specifically to Arabs. From the twelfth century, when with the Crusades the “enemy” became better known to the Franks, the term Saracen was an umbrella term for any Muslim and it no longer applied to other Arabs. The term Moor was used both generally for Muslims and specifically to refer to those who came directly from Africa. Later, with the advances of the Turkish armies, Turk was the general term applied to the followers of “Mahomet” or Muhammad. At times when anger at Muslim aggression was the highest, as in western Europe, the term used to identify the aggressors was not Saracen but Barbari, meaning both barbarian and enemy.

During the Middle Ages the West in general found it very difficult to formulate a coherent vision of Islam, constrained by its own narrow horizons as well as by a lack of sufficient and accurate information. For the most part Christians knew virtually nothing about the religion of Islam, but saw the Saracens only as the enemy. It was only in Spain, where the two communities were in close though often hostile interaction, that a clearer picture of the religion as such emerged. Two quite different populations in the West expressed a vision of Islam. One was that of the common people, fostered primarily by the propaganda that led up to and supported the Crusades and fed by the largely inaccurate information from the Chansons de Geste (the body of literature filled with adventure and romance, warfare and chivalry). The other was that of the scholastics, emerging primarily in the context of Spain. Although sometimes it was reactionary, seeing Islam as violent and fanatic, in general the scholastics' vision of Islam was reasonably balanced and attempted to portray Islam more realistically than was the case through the stereotypes that intrigued Christian society at large.

Although the factual information conveyed by these two segments of society differed considerably, westerners in general shared an underlying attitude toward those described as Saracens, Moors, and Turks. Governed by a “we” and “they” mentality, most Christians saw the lands of Islam, despite their scientific and cultural advances, by definition to be outside the civilized world as they knew it. The way in which Islam was condemned was not unlike the way many in the western church condemned Oriental churches as heresies, as beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. Considered as alien peoples, Muslims were natural candidates for the objects of crusade at the time when that was called for.

One of the earliest Christians to undertake a serious study of Islam was John of Damascus, a government official during the reign of the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik (r. 685–705), who left his public post to take up a life of contemplation at a Greek Orthodox monastery. Knowledgeable in Arabic, he was well versed in the main doctrines of Islam, especially those relating to Jesus and Christianity. His major theological work contains a section dealing with the so-called heresy of the Ismailites (Muslims) and his designation of Muhammad as the Antichrist. In another more moderate work he presents a series of supposed debates between a Christian and a Muslim, in which the Christian (not surprisingly) wins. Although not overly appreciative of Islam, he nonetheless expressed a desire for both sides to reason together in their debate. For his pains, despite his standing as a church theologian, John was condemned at the iconoclastic synod of 754 for being “Saracen-minded” and inclined toward the religion of Islam.

Scholastic writings coming out of the eastern part of the empire in the ninth and tenth centuries, especially from Byzantium, tended to be contemptuous and even abusive of the Prophet. In general this polemic was apocalyptic (prophesying the end of the Arabs) and highly uncharitable. The work produced in Spain, such as the writing of Isadore of Seville in the mid 800s, provided the first attempt at a comprehensive view of the religion of the Saracens, despite its predilection to see Islam as a preparation for the final appearance of the Antichrist. Spanish Christian apologetic quickly took on more of the character of philosophical argumentation, even using Islamic methods based on Aristotelian logic. Notable among several significant attempts in the twelfth century to present Islam in a somewhat more tolerant, or at least realistic, way was that of the French monk Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny (ca. 1092–1156). After having visited the Cluniac monasteries in Spain, Peter began a movement to better understand Islam, to be able to combat it more intelligently. As part of this effort he engaged the English scholar Robert of Ketton to translate the Quran, which he completed in 1143. This first full translation, despite its errors and omissions, provided the Latin West its first tool for significant study of the religion of the Saracens, an opportunity that unfortunately few chose to pursue. Despite the importance of his pioneering efforts, Peter continued like such earlier writers as John of Damascus to view Islam as a Christian heresy that must be combated, reflected in the title of his Latin polemic, Against the Loathsome Heresy of the Sect of the Saracens.

The reality of the Crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the anti-Muslim feelings encouraged in the efforts to support the wars did little to foster interfaith understanding. The fact is that Islam was never really believed to be any kind of alternative to Christian truth, and for the most part it was not treated seriously by the scholastics. In the late 1200s, for example, the great Italian scholastic Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) in his Summa Contra Gentiles included some polemic against Muhammad, yet on the whole it paid little attention to Islam as a religion. The Andalusian philosopher and theologian Ramon Llull (ca. 1235–1316), writing at the same time, again resorted to the familiar tactic of positing dialogical argumentation between Christians and Muslims, in which Muslims never fared well. One of the few westerners opposed to the Crusades as evil, Llull urged other means of bringing the Saracens to “the truth.” He was prophetic in his concern that the Tartars, then on the move in the eastern lands, should become attracted to the law of Muhammad, warning that it would be a great danger to Christendom. By the end of the thirteenth century Ricoldo da Montecroce of Florence, a Dominican scholar and missionary in Baghdad, was one of the first to report the fall of Acre to the Mongols and the reality that they were turning to Islam and not to Christianity. Ricoldo, unlike many other Europeans, knew Arabic well and drew creatively on the similarities he saw in the Quran and the Bible. Nevertheless, like others he could not resist lumping together all the heresies to which he saw Christianity opposed, including Nestorianism and Islam, with little critical distinction drawn between them.

One of the few medieval Christians to take both Islam and religious pluralism seriously was the German philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64) in the middle of the fifteenth century. At a time when absurd stories were being spread about Islam and its founder, Nicholas tried to understand the faith of the Saracens. He undertook a thorough historical and literary study of the Quran, even though it was for purposes of refutation. Such efforts at better understanding were not reflected in the work of the giants of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s. The German religious reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) saw the Turks, as they were then called, as God's rods of chastisement, whose god was equal to the devil and whose so-called holy book was both foul and shameful. The French theologian and reformer John Calvin (1509-64), for his part, likened the Turks to his more immediate enemies the Papists, attributing to both the evils of gross deception.

Despite the fact that in the understanding of medieval Christian clergy Islam was a Christian heresy (although technically a heretic is one who has been baptized in the faith), in the popular literature of this time Muslims were clearly considered to be pagans. This tension between the necessity of seeing Islam both as “other” and at the same time of understanding it as a deviation from, a salacious heresy within, the body of Christianity itself remained throughout the Middle Ages. Christians enjoyed feelings of both repulsion for and fascination with the Prophet and his religion. Muhammad was almost universally thought of among Christians as a man of depravity, dishonor, falsehood, and illicit power. In addition, he was seen as a sexual libertine, demonstrated most specifically by the well-known facts of his own multiple marriages and the details of his (that is, the Quran's) description of the pleasures of the gardens of paradise, which was seen by the west as both material and carnal. Such rewards promised to the faithful were convincing proof to the Christians that Islam was a religion utterly devoid of spirituality. The ill regard with which Christians held the Prophet of Islam did nothing to prevent them from a fascination with what they deemed to be the more sordid aspects of his life and teachings. They saw him as having presented throughout his life a prime example of sensuality, violence, and immorality, an example that guaranteed that his followers would demonstrate those same unfortunate qualities. Christians' opinions about the Prophet and his religion had as their starting point the conviction of the depravity of Muhammad, but this never stopped them from analyzing whatever elements of the faith were familiar to them and pronouncing them to be further proof of the absolute inadequacy of Islam as a religion.

In western eyes, the other primary offense of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers was the advocacy of force and violence. This moved from the realm of simple analysis of the life and teachings of the founder of Islam to the actual experiences that Christians had, or sometimes believed that they had, of Muslims invading their lands and profaning their churches. Such violence was seen as a natural outgrowth of the Saracen terror that was associated with Arab lands as a legacy from the warring tribes of the Old Testament. It was at once projected upon Islam and expected of it, fostered in the awareness that Muslims understood the world to be divided into what they termed “the abode of Islam” and that which is not Muslim, namely “the abode of war.” (One school of Islamic law, the Shafii, added a third category, “the abode of truce,” for those territories with which a Muslim government has concluded a treaty.) This was especially true in Europe's southern regions, where the skirmishes continued at such a pace that it was difficult not to impute to the Muslims marauders qualities of violent behavior. The hardening of this mind-set in the European consciousness is at least part of the explanation of the apparent lack of conscience displayed in the acts of aggression and violence perpetrated by the Franks at the time of the Crusades. Although in reality a great deal of reliable information was available about Islam and its Prophet, it was fashionable and served the appropriate polemical purpose to circulate popular tales that ranged from gross exaggeration to complete and baseless fiction.

Much of the information of the medieval western writers and poets came from the Byzantines, whose hatred for the Prophet of Islam had always been intense. It fueled the propaganda efforts of those generating enthusiasm for the Crusades, both in the Chansons de Geste and in the notably inaccurate histories of such medieval writers as Hildebert of Tours, Walter of Compiegne, and Vincent of Beauvais. Hildebert was the author of the eleventh-century Latin poem Historia de Muhamete, probably the most widely read medieval poetic work dealing with Islam. It includes scurrilous narratives about the Prophet of Islam, such as his having returned home in a drunken stupor, fallen into a dunghill, and been eaten by pigs. In some versions of the poem, it includes the mention of Muhammad having prophesied his own resurrection three days after he was to have died, an obvious slander of Islam based on a Christian theme. After three days, the poem reads, Muhammad's followers left, disgusted by the lack of a miracle and nauseated by the stench of putrefaction, and the body was devoured by dogs. This is reported as the reason Muslims do not eat pork. Hildebert's Historia also contains the tale, repeated throughout the Middle Ages, of Muhammad's remains being buried in a temple of marble and gold, with his coffin suspended by magnets to trick his followers into believing he had miraculous powers.

One of the most influential narratives about the Prophet of Islam was the French Roman de Mahomet, written by Alexandre du Pont in 1258. This is a rhymed story based on a Latin poem of the same theme by a monk named Walterius (Gautier), which pretends to be the recitation of a converted Saracen. In Gautier's work Muhammad is portrayed as an imposter who founded his religion with the help of childish trickeries. Although Hildebert and Gautier were clerics, du Pont wrote from a lay perspective and turned his work into a novel reflecting the ideals of chivalrous life. His narrative is a kind of compendium of the various stories that were current about the Prophet, nearly all of it repeated in the popular poetry of the time. Included are Muhammad's marriage to a wealthy widow out of greed and ambition, such false “miracles” to dupe his followers as a trained calf appearing with pages of the Quran fastened on its horns, his licentious relationships with women, and the magnet-suspended coffin. This version of Muhammad's life omits the popular tale of a dove trained to pick corn out of his ear, which he pretends is the holy spirit giving him revelations, and of his body having been devoured by swine. Included in du Pont's “biography” is the often-repeated story that Muhammad was actually a Christian cardinal who had been promised the pontifical throne if he converted the Saracens to Christianity. Having fulfilled that task, he was subsequently betrayed and as a result started the heretical sect of the “Mahometans.”

Much of this apocryphal narrative about the Prophet Muhammad was available through the Chansons de Geste. For the most part, lay people were neither knowledgeable about nor much interested in Islam, but they found the tales related in the Chansons entertaining and reflective of many of the societal ideals that they most valued. The songs were written from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, many at the height of crusading fervor, but they purported to be set in the time of the emperor Charlemagne and his son Louis. There are three principle cycles of the Chansons in which the Saracens appear, of which the “Song of Roland” is considered to be the oldest. In the first two cycles the action takes place mainly in Europe. The third cycle is situated entirely in the east, written after the Crusaders first took Jerusalem in 1099. These songs became the vehicles for a kind of revenge for the defeats suffered earlier at the hands of the Muslims, and it is not surprising that in them the Saracens are mightily conquered. This literature was extremely popular in the west, simple in style and intended for a wide audience, reflecting sentiments and beliefs that were commonly accepted. The context was one in which Christians and Saracens both shared in a single chivalrous culture. The songs illustrate the religious faith of the knights as well as their desire for conquest, the spoils of war, personal glory, romance, and victory over their enemies.

Descriptions of Islam in the Chansons are wildly inaccurate, not reflective of what was certainly known in the west at that time but rather designed for popular appeal and crusading fervor. Some descriptions relate that Muslims worshiped a great number of gods, of whom the most important and powerful was “Mahomet” or “Mahon.” Occasionally there was reference to his claim that he was a prophet sent by God who would become a god himself when he died. Other poets imagined that Islam supported a trinity of deities composed of Mahomet (Mahon), Tervagent (Tervagan), and Apollin. None of these notions is found in literature outside the Chansons. The “Song of Roland” knew only the three idols, but the list of accompanying gods, to whom the Christian writers assigned the names of various devilish creatures, grew longer with the other cycles. In the songs the name of God is never cited. In fact, they put the expression “By Mahon [Muhammad]!” in the mouth of the Saracens, suggesting that it is he who is in fact their god. The places of worship of the Saracens often are referred to as “sinagogues,” revealing a tendency to attribute to Islam some of what was known about Judaism, or as “mahomeries.” Images of Mahomet were said to be huge, carved in marble or crystal, with brilliant colors, sometimes studded with jewels, gold, and silver. As a god, Mahomet could be carried around by his people on their expeditions or in battle and could be consulted for advice. There are even references to Mahomet having made an idol of himself while he was still alive and filling it with a legion of devils. Saracens could approach the idol safely, but should a Christian come near it, the Christian would perish. A number of the songs note the anger with which the Saracens treat the idols when they have suffered losses on the battlefield. According to the “Song of Roland,” they rush on Apollin in his shrine, striking and cruelly shattering him, and throw Muhammad into a ditch where hogs and dogs devour and trample him. This renunciation of the idols is said to be in contrast to the Christians, who never renounce their God upon defeat.

On the whole the songs are far less interested in Muhammad either as a man or as a god than they are in portraying his followers. The Saracens themselves are often described in grotesque terms, having huge noses and ears, blacker than ink with only their teeth showing white, eyes like burning coals, teeth that can bite like a serpent, some with horns like the antlers of stags. Typically they are said to be enormous in size, no doubt to make Christian victories over them more impressive. Despite the fact that there are various instances of the poets referring to the Saracens as creatures of Satan, it is clear that Muslims were not regarded as truly diabolical beings. They were recognized as having souls, although they could not go to paradise because they were pagans, and a few were even presented as having pure hearts, inviting admiration as well as pity for the fact that they were not Christian. Underlying all the songs is the theme that if the Saracens could be defeated on the battlefield, they could be persuaded to accept the religion of the vanquisher, namely Christianity. The goal was not the extermination of the enemy, but the conversion of as many as possible.

Medieval Christian Views of Islam and Its Prophet

In the popular mind, medieval Christians saw Muslim warriors as brave and noble, worthy enemies of Christian knights. This marginal illustration to a psalter made before 1340 for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276–1345) shows King Richard I of England on the left tilting at the great Muslim leader Salah al-Din, known as Saladin in the west.

view larger image

The Saracen soldiers themselves are often portrayed as brave and noble, worthy enemies of the Christian knights, whose primary fault is that they follow such a depraved religion as Islam. The false references to bizarre Islamic practices were only a small part of this body of literature that was, in fact, reflective also of a deep respect for the military skills and even the chivalry of the Arab warriors. This is especially true in the cycle that represents the writing of the second crusade, notably in the poem entitled “Saladin” after the great twelfth-century Muslim leader and hero Salah al-Din. Despite the extremity with which Muhammad and his religion are portrayed, there was an understanding that Franks and Arabs shared a world and even a culture in which certain ideals such as chivalry, loyalty, and bravery were reflected. Such qualities were thus appreciated in both the Christian heroes and the Muslim warriors. The theme of romance also runs through many of the songs, often with Saracen women falling in love with Christian knights. The romance generally begins when the French knight is a prisoner of the Saracens, and he eventually regains his liberty, thanks to the efforts of the Muslim princess. The romantic conclusion was all the more delicious for having been set in the context of battle and intercultural prejudices. The Saracen women who were wooed by the knights were portrayed as beautiful, intelligent, devoted, virtuous, humble, and courageous, well worthy of the love of their Christian consorts. The inevitable conclusion is the conversion of the Saracen women to Christianity, only after which is any sexual relationship allowed.

Thus although the Chansons de Geste and other forms of romance literature served as vehicles for Crusade propaganda, they also reflect attitudes that are more generous toward Muslims. Often the stories were based on real interactions and relationships with those whom official dogma proclaimed to the ultimate enemies of Christendom. The more charitable expressions were based on the experience of Frank to Arab, however, and not Christian to Muslim. Those who were most knowledgeable about Islam—that is, those writing for religious purposes—were generally the least charitable. The greatest falsehoods were contained in the literature of those who were least knowledgeable about the faith, but who also expressed the greatest appreciation for the Saracens as worthy participants in a common feudal and chivalrous culture.

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